Nova (1974–…): Season 45, Episode 10 - Volcano on Fire - full transcript

Climb with volcano experts to the summit of Nyiragongo, a highly active volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Twice in recent memory it has erupted, devastating Goma, a neighboring city of 1 million people. To investigate when it might erupt next, scientists climb into its crater toward a bubbling lava lake to deploy sensors and monitor the volcano's activity.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
In the heart of Africa

are two of the world's
most dangerous volcanoes.

Within their craters,
molten lava steams and boils.

Over centuries,

these volcanoes have erupted
many times...

But when will they erupt again?

It's a crucial question,
but no one knows the answer,

because these are among
the least studied volcanoes

in the world.

Now an international team
of scientists

is investigating these giants.

Their goal?

To predict future eruptions
and save lives.

Everything we do to understand
this volcano

is very important
to avoid another disaster.

They're heading to the volcano
known as Nyiragongo,

which towers
over a rapidly growing city

of a million people.

An eruption in 2002
caused death and destruction.

I could see the lava flowing
and wrecking all houses.

You could hear the noise.

To penetrate
the volcano's secrets,

the scientific team descends
into the crater itself.

It's treacherous.


Everything's moving.

Nothing is stable.

But with lives in the balance...


...the stakes
could not be higher.

Oh, man, look at these rocks.

Just precariously balanced.

"Volcano on Fire,"
right now on "NOVA."

Major funding for "NOVA"
is provided by the following:

Deep in central Africa

is one of the most spectacular,

and dangerous volcanoes
on Earth.

That's terrifying.

There's literally nothing
like this in the world.

This volcano, named Nyiragongo,

threatens almost a million
people in this region.

Twice in recent memory

it has devastated
the city of Goma.

The red river keeps flowing,

pouring out of the volcano
and down towards Goma.

Violent conflict in this region

has often made it too dangerous

to mount any large
scientific expeditions.

But a temporary peace
opens the door

for a groundbreaking

Because this giant

is one of the least understood
volcanoes in the world,

both threatening
and life-giving.

A team of scientists
will spend a week on Nyiragongo,

the volcano that towers
over Goma.

Their goal is to find ways
to predict

when this volcano
will next erupt.

A huge spike in the amount
of sulfur dioxide,

that could be something that
happens before an eruption.

Their search for answers

will take them deep
inside the crater...

I've just come over the edge.

...and into great danger.

If any of this rock goes here,
that's it for both of us.

Now the team is on its way to
the 11,400-foot-high Nyiragongo.

It lies on the Democratic
Republic of Congo's

eastern border with Rwanda.

Its steep cone,

created by successive eruptions
over centuries,

rises over a mile above Goma
and the surrounding landscape.

Forecasting eruptions is
difficult and uncertain

even for well-studied volcanoes,

but it can save lives

by giving people time
to get out of harm's way.

23, 24, 25...

To achieve that,

the scientists have brought
an array of equipment

to investigate this volcano
in many different ways.

Just take care that
the men take the heavy bags...


Leading the science team

is Belgian volcanologist
Benoît Smets.

Studying Nyiragongo
is very important for me,

because this volcano
is very dangerous.

It, uh, threaten
a lot of people.

Everything we do to understand
this volcano

is very important to avoid
another disaster like in 2002.

Joining him are scientists from
the local volcano observatory,

who want to install instruments
on the crater rim.

Joshua Subira has studied this
volcano for several years

and knows firsthand
how difficult the climb will be.


Actually that's the one
I'm worried about,

because I don't want someone
to drop it.

American geologists Jeff Johnson
and Kayla lacovino

are worried about damage
to the instruments they brought

to help identify warnings
of an eruption.

No, the sun's out down here.

Did you have a good night
last night?

Ab solutely hammered it down.

Former Royal Marine Aldo Kane
is in charge

of getting everyone
and everything

to the top of the volcano.

We've got science kit,
expedition kit, rigging kit,

food, water,

nearly four tons of kit
that's going up the hill today.

Nyiragongo's crater rim
is 6,500 feet above the jungle

and only accessible on foot.

It takes six hours

for the team to reach
its steep upper slopes.

The weather's closed in.

It's cold.

But their reward

is a view of one of Earth's
great natural wonders.

Oh, my God,
that is so incredible.

There's literally nothing
like this in the world.

There are six permanent
lava lakes on Earth.

You are standing looking
into one of those six.

Of those six lava lakes,

they are all babies compared
to this size of...

Yeah, they are.

All other global lava lakes

could fit into this lava lake,

with tons of room left over.

This lava lake is enormous.

The sheer size of it,
I think, is just hard to fathom.

The crater is almost a mile
in diameter.

Inside is a permanent cauldron
of molten rock.

And it constantly churns

at almost 2,000 degrees

It's ferocious...
It feels very alive.

I mean, even when we're silent,

there's that constant roar.

It's just,
doesn't let up at all.

British geologist Chris Jackson

has studied volcanic landscapes
across the world.

For him, volcano prediction

is a scientific and humanitarian

Yesterday, he traveled in
through the city

that lies
at the foot of the volcano.

It's amazing to think

that there's such a threat posed
by that volcano,

yet because of that volcano,
you can build houses

and some sort of infrastructure.

Goma, a city
of almost a million people,

is growing and modernizing

Houses are going up everywhere,

with foundations made
from volcanic lava.

This is incredibly exciting

to be joining an expedition
like this,

to do cutting-edge,
critical science

for the people living
in the shadow

of this giant volcano.

In the outskirts of the city,

the volcano is virtually
a next-door neighbor.

This place may look
like a building site,

but it's a building site
sitting directly on top

of this, this lava, which
was erupted only 15 years ago

from the volcano of Nyiragongo.

For the people who live
in the city of Goma,

this is just a disaster
waiting to happen.

A disaster that has happened
many times before.

Daylight, and some
of the first pictures

reveal a black blanket of lava
covering entire neighborhoods.

When Nyiragongo erupted in 2002,

lava flows split the city
in three,

destroying many homes

and causing
about a hundred deaths

as people fled for their lives.

The red river keeps flowing,

pouring out of the volcano
and down towards Goma.

I could see people walking
on this main road

fleeing the volcano.

Caleb Kabanda, a
local journalist,

witnessed the whole eruption

from the center of Goma.

You know, it was a lake of lava
destroying everything.

I could see lot of smoke,

and the lava flowing
and wrecking all houses.

You could hear the noise.

I was very scared.

The lava has been flowing
for two days now.

It shows no sign of stopping.

Some places you could see
the fire burning.

Many people panicked,

because it was a disaster
to the whole city.

You see all the houses
you knew were destroyed.

It was really, uh, terrible

and I thought
that this is the end of Goma.

As if the people of Goma
had not suffered enough,

this was a day that brought them
more death,

more tragedy.

Fireballs filled the sky

after a petrol station here

Fuel cans leapt into the air.

Eruptions like this
are no surprise,

because Nyiragongo
is part of one

of the largest volcanically
active zones on Earth,

the East African Rift,

a vast scar created by
the pulling apart of the land.

It's believed this is happening
because deep in the Earth,

volcanic magma is rising,

pushing up on
a massive continental plate,

slowly splitting it in two.

If it continues,

Africa will eventually
break apart,

creating a new ocean,

the first to form
in over 30 million years.

Nyiragongo is in the center
of this giant geological tear.

There have been
two major eruptions

in the last 40 years.

There is little doubt
it will erupt again

with the same
catastrophic consequences.

Back on the volcano,
overlooking the crater,

the science team considers
tomorrow's descent.

It will be a difficult
and hazardous climb,

but it's the only way
they can study the lava lake

up close.

That is full on.

From where we are here
to get down there,

it's over 400 meters,

so that's what,
four times Big Ben?

And that's where
we hope to camp,

down there on that,
that second level.

That's terrifying,
that is absolutely terrifying.

As terrifying as it appears,
the volcano is also mysterious.

As Chris explains,

it's not completely understood
why it erupts at all.

This, this is a volcano.

Beneath this volcano,

and all of the volcanoes
in the world,

is a magma chamber,
or some molten body of rock.

It's magma from this chamber
which rises up

into the volcano.

And it's changes in pressure
within this magma chamber

that gives rise to eruptions
out of volcanoes.

Here at Nyiragongo,
we have a lava lake.

In theory,

there shouldn't be any pressure
building up in here.

All of that pressure

should be just oozing
and venting out of the surface

without eruptions.

However, we do know
that this volcano,

it's common to have
dangerous eruptions

from the flank of the volcano.

Flank eruptions,
like the one in 2002,

can be lethal.

The science team believes

that intense activity
deep underground

increases pressure so rapidly

that lava forces its way
out of the volcano's side.

So they need to find a way
to measure changes in pressure

deep underground.

But there's a problem.

It's very difficult,
or almost impossible,

to directly measure changes
in magma pressure

directly within the chamber.

One thing we can do
is to look at changes

in the lava lake itself.

The constant activity
of the lava lake

and the gases venting
from its surface

are not only a spectacle,
they provide clues

about pressure changes
inside the magma chamber,

partly due
to the build-up of gases

such as carbon dioxide,
water vapor,

and sulfur dioxide.

And some of these volcanic gases
pose a deadly threat.

In fact, these gases are
found in the ground

throughout this whole
region, and they seep out,

creating a potentially
fatal danger

for the people
and animals that live here.

Volcanologist Dario Tedesco
and Mathieu Yalire

are in a village
just outside Goma

to warn the local people

about this deadly side effect
of living here.

Mathieu has gathered them
around a pit

that appears innocuous,

but contains an invisible
and deadly gas.

The gas is carbon dioxide,

though the locals
have another name for it...


Mazuku mean "evil wind."

The gas slowly seeps up
through the cracks in the rocks,

from the pockets of magma
that underlie this whole area.

At concentrations
of just seven percent,

it silently kills within minutes
by suffocating its victims.

Mathieu and Dario
head down into the pit.

20% already.


And discover levels of
carbon dioxide... 70%... high as 90%.

More people are killed by mazuku
than by volcanic eruptions.

And because carbon dioxide
is heavier than air,

it pools in depressions
all around this area,

so children are
especially vulnerable.

Here at the
Goma Volcano Observatory,

scientists have set up a network
of seismic stations

to keep an eye on activity
across the region.

These stations detect
tiny tremors set off by lava

as it forces
its way towards the surface,

a telltale sign
of a new eruption.

Geologist Joshua Subira
monitors it all.

To locate.

On top of Nyiragongo,
Joshua and the science team

are planning to install
the first seismic station

on the volcano itself.

But getting
to the right location

means a difficult
and dangerous hike

along the razor-edged
crater rim.

If you're a goat, it's easy...

Just watch your feet,

keep always
at least one hand free

to recover your balance.

After a precarious
two-hour walk,

Belgian scientist
Nicolas d'Oreye

finally finds a good spot.

This is simply
a piece of flat stone,

so we have a flat surface

to have the seismometer
resting on.

The network needs sensors
in many different places

so the scientists can establish
the depth and location

of volcanic activity.

We are interested in knowing

exactly where
the signal comes from.

If you have several fractures

making progress
toward the surface,

it might be a problem
if it start to become shallower,

and then that's an eruption.

For Joshua, this network
of seismic stations is vital,

because more stations
give scientists a better chance

of predicting an eruption.

Although the seismic network
in the region is improving,

it isn't a foolproof way
of detecting eruptions.

If the lava flows

through existing cracks
in the rocks,

the seismometers won't register
any tremors.

So the team needs
additional ways

to monitor the volcano,

to evacuate people
and save lives

in the city of Goma.

First light on the crater rim.

The priority is to get down
to the lava lake

as soon as possible.

The weather conditions
are miserable,

but at this altitude,
it can get a lot worse.

The temperature
is slightly warmer in there,

but it can change like that,
and it can go down to freezing.

My team were down there

and were caught out
in a hailstorm.

Again, just, stuck in
with the heaviest hail.

Torrents of water stream down
the loose crater wall,

creating treacherous rockfalls.

There are waterfalls coming all
down the side of the volcano,

knocking massive rocks,
coming flying towards us.

For Aldo,

the risk of bad weather
means a change of plan.

What we want to do

is cut the amount of people
that are going down

into the volcano

to essentials only,
and that... Kayla,

I was speaking
to you earlier on,

and you mentioned you can do

a lot of your stuff
up on the top here.

So, um, I'm happy to,
to keep you up here

and not take you down there,
because of that.

I can do all of the work
that I need to do

basically on the rim.

There's definitely
some mixed emotions

behind me not being able
to go down.

There's a bit of relief,

because it,
it is so dangerous to do.


And, and there's also
a bit of disappointment,

because, you know,
what an amazing experience

to spend a couple of nights in
the crater next to a lava lake,

it's something
I could never have dreamed of

being able to ever do.

When the weather clears a bit,

Aldo decides to start
the descent.

I can feel
my heart rate going up

just putting the harness on.

Wait till you look over the edge.

Last bit before we go down,
kicking rocks off...

If you do kick a rock off,
big shout,


If one of these rocks hits
someone on the head,

it will kill them,

even with these helmets on.

I think I'm ready.

You should enjoy the view first
before we go over,

because after that
you're gonna be fairly dizzy.


Nyiragongo's crater
has three levels.

Tier one is a small outcrop

almost a thousand feet
below the crater rim.

A sheer, 250-foot drop
below tier one is tier two,

where the team will be camping.

And finally, tier three,

the bottom level
that surrounds the lava lake.

How you feeling?

A blend of excitement
and nerves,

I'll be honest with you, yeah.

Climbing down

is the most dangerous part
of the expedition.

But even more so for Chris...

Nice and gently, Chris.

...who's not
an experienced climber.


How does it feel?

- Better now...
- I've just come over the edge.

And in such a remote location,

if something goes wrong,

there are no rescue teams,
no helicopters,

to take an injured climber out.


Try not to do that,

because there are sections
if you do that,

that the whole slope will go.


All of this is just
waiting to fall.


That wind's just picked up.

Yeah, yeah, I can feel it.

Be careful not to kick anything.

If you kick anything,
it's coming down on my head.

Yeah, okay.

Everything's moving.

Nothing is stable.


Oh, Jesus.


Have a look back up.

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Yeah, that's good, that's good.


You okay?

With the weather holding,

the rest of the team
also starts the descent.

Just watch your feet
coming down.

After almost three hours
on the ropes,

Chris is more
than halfway down...

Something to tell the grandkids.

...and about to be lowered down

about 250 feet
to the campsite below.

That's where we're heading to,

to the base camp down there.


First it's going to be Chris,

To do this safely,
Chris is suspended

on what's known
as a Larkin frame...

Make yourself comfy.

Don't worry.

...a piece of gear brought down
by Aldo

and his climbing partner Daz

during preparation
for the descent.

Clear now!

Thank you.

Oh, my gosh.

- Steady.
- Okay.

Chris is down.

Thanks, Daz.

That is spot on,
that is very good.

Oh, too intense!

Don't look back.

Don't look back.
Don't look back.

So, I made it down to T2.

Daz is just, uh,
sorting out the ropes

to be sent back up
for the next victim.

But the first thing I noticed,

as soon as I come down
to this level,

these giant chasms,

maybe a meter,
maybe two meters wide.

You can see in the distance

the campsite that's been set up.

Tents have been pitched between
two potentially fatal hazards:

the vertical drop down
to the lava lake

is less than
a hundred feet away;

and just behind the tents
lies a field of fallen rocks

from the crater wall.

Despite the danger,

for Chris, the landscape
is literally out of this world.

If I was to compare this
environment to anywhere else,

I'd say Mars.

There's just blacks
and whites and reds,

you know, it's
very simple colors everywhere.

There is no vegetation

There doesn't seem to be
anything living down here.

One of the reasons is actually
what I'm smelling.

It's, it's sulfur.

And all around us,
there's these vents

which are spewing out sulfur
into the air.

Sulfur gases,
which Chris smells,

are just some of the toxic gases
released from the volcano.

By now, Benoît has also
descended down to tier two,

hurrying to prepare
his first experiment,

because time in the crater
is limited.

He hopes to monitor
the level of the lava lake

to learn what's going on
inside Nyiragongo.

Unlike most volcanoes,

Nyiragongo erupts
from cracks in its flanks.

But like all volcanoes,

it erupts when pressure builds
in its magma chamber

deep underground.

If the team could measure
that pressure,

it would provide a warning sign
of an eruption,

but the magma chamber is at
least a mile below the surface,

so it's impossible to measure
any pressure changes directly.

Benoît suspects, though,

the lava lake itself may reveal
those pressure changes.

Here we have the chance
to have this big lava lake,

and you can see the lava lake

as a magmatic chamber
at ground surface.

The plan is to use time-lapse

to record any changes
in the lake level.

But when the lava lake
is wreathed in venting gases,

it's hard to see.

To penetrate these clouds
of gas,

Benoît's cameras detect light

in the infrared part
of the spectrum...

Invisible to our eyes,
but not to the camera.

I made these boxes myself.

My box is made
of a microcomputer,

that will control everything;

a real-time clock to have
an accurate time;

and a camera,
it's a small camera

like you have
on your smartphone.

And it will take
every ten seconds,

and by comparing these pictures,
I will be able to see

the variations
of the lava lake level.

Okay, Daz, lowering Jeff out.

Okay, come up to it.

As evening falls,

the other team members
finally descend.

Lowering you into the cauldron.

Keep your feet on the rock.

Aldo is the last to come down,
in complete darkness.

The next morning,

Benoît returns to his cameras
to see if they've worked,

and whether they can reveal
anything about pressure

in the magma chamber.


We've got a beautiful
lava lake level drop

compared to yesterday
at the same time.

It's great.

So we recorded
something special.

To Benoît's expert eye,

the camera has recorded a drop
of about 15 feet

within the last 24 hours.

Benoît believes
the most likely explanation

is that there has been
a slight drop in pressure

within the magma chamber.

A slow rise and fall
in the level of the lava lake

suggests stability,

as opposed to what's known
as gas pistoning,

rapid and violent changes
in the lake level.

Benoît has witnessed that
behavior in other volcanoes,

and believes it's driven
by dramatic variations

in magma pressure.

It's also been reported before...

Previous eruptions
from Nyiragongo.

It's not about having
the lava lake level

high or low, it's
understanding these movements

to predict a big event,

like a flank eruption,
for example,

because that's what happens

before the last two
flank eruptions.

So we had big movements
of the lava lake,

and all this may say something
about an upcoming eruption.

Benoît's cameras are capable of
spotting these abrupt changes,

but they haven't yet
been designed

to be left in the crater
and watched remotely.

So the team needs to find
another way

to warn the people of Goma
of an impending eruption.

Volcanologist Jeff Johnson
thinks he can do this

by listening to the sounds
Nyiragongo produces...

But not just any sounds.

This is a custom-built

and it's capable
of recording sounds

beyond the threshold
of human hearing.

Jeff's microphone is designed
to pick up

very low frequency sound...

What's known as infrasound.

Volcanoes speak
at low frequencies.

They generate sounds
that we can hear,

but they also generate
this world of infrasound,

a unique voice print

that we want to recognize
and understand,

so that when that tone changes
in the future,

we will be able to understand
what's going on.

If Jeff is right,

then like an organ pipe,
this tone will change

as the level of the lava lake
rises and falls.


Using sound in this way
has great potential,

and Chris Jackson is eager
to see how it works.

So we're listening to sounds

coming from the lava lake,
is that right?

We're trying to hear
the lava lake

with these sensors.

The infrasound
is detecting motions

that occur both
at the lava lake surface

and also inside this bowl
that could be vibrating.

You don't think
of a caldera this big

as being an air mass
that may be going up and down.


But that's what we have

The crater actually acts
as a musical instrument.

First, the scientists need
to install the microphones.

To detect
this low-frequency sound,

Jeff and Chris place groups
of sensors

at several locations
around tier two of the crater,

as close to the edge
as they dare.

Go from here to there.


And from here to there.


And it's not long
before they're getting results.

So we've collected some data.

It looks like a bunch of wiggles
on a screen to me.

But what noise
is the volcano making?

so we can't hear infrasound,

but we can speed it up,
and we can make it audible.

Here's an example
of the infrasound being sped up

by a factor of 40.

This to me is exciting.

I see the data;

it's good, good quality,
and I am happy.

Even more exciting

is the possibility of leaving
a network of microphones

in the crater

to detect changes in the sounds
the volcano is making.

On its own

or with Benoît's images
of the lava lake,

this data could give scientists
precise clues

to the volcano's behavior,

and for the people of Goma,

it could lead to better
early warnings of an eruption.

So it would be fair to say
that infrasound

could help better protect
the people of Goma

from a volcanic eruption?

So, I'm a scientist,
and I'm naturally cagey

about answering
a question like that,

but yes, I do believe
that infrasound

is a fundamental tool
for volcano monitoring,

and not too far down the road,

we will be able to use
infrasound monitoring here

to better forecast
Nyiragongo's next eruption.

Up on the volcano rim,

Kayla has yet another idea
for an early-warning system.

She studies the gases

that constantly vent
from the lava lake's surface,

because she thinks
they can tell her

what's happening
in the magma chamber.

The real power
in gas measurements

is that it can tell us
about the entire system

miles and miles
beneath your feet.

That's where the action is,

that is the driving force
of volcanism.

It's controlled deep down
in the guts of the volcano.

All lava contains gases,

but when an eruption
is building,

those gases change.

The most worrying gas
is sulfur dioxide,

because an increase
often signals

that lava is moving up
towards the surface.

By placing a device called a
gas box where the volcano vents,

Kayla can measure the amount
of sulfur dioxide

coming off the lava.

Sulfur dioxide
is the kind of gas

that bubbles out of the magma

in the really shallow part
of the system,

so just beneath the lava lake.

If we see, all of a sudden,

a huge spike in the amount
of sulfur dioxide

that's coming out of the crater,

that could be something
that happens before an eruption.

After 12 hours,
Kayla returns to the vent

to find out
what's been recorded.

So I'm just looking
at the data now,

and I'm pretty happy.

So these are sulfur dioxide,

we're getting some readings

Less than one part per million,
but there is some reading there,

and it's something
that we should keep an eye on

to, to try to predict
future activity.

Kayla sees this low reading
as good news,

suggesting new magma
is not rising up

through the volcano.

For the moment,
Goma appears safe.

But sampling gases
is unreliable,

because it depends
on weather conditions

and wind direction.

Perhaps a combination
of early-warning techniques

is needed to protect Goma,

but no warning system
is perfect.

So one key question remains:

if the volcano starts erupting
without warning...

How long will people have

before the lava
reaches the city?

That depends
on its chemical properties,

which determine
how quickly it flows.

To estimate the speed

that lava will travel
during the next eruption,

the team needs fresh samples.

Ideally, they would take samples
directly from the lake,

but that's simply too dangerous.

There is, though,
another possibility.

During preparations
for the descent,

Aldo witnessed a new
vent opening up... Holy.

...that sent rivers of lava
running across tier three,

the crater floor.

So that's supposed to be
heading down,

but this aggressive vent here
is, is constantly boiling

and the...

I mean, you can see there
the lava bombs

that are getting blown out
of there

are probably 40, 50 meters
into the air.

For Aldo, it was terrifying.

There's just so many, uh...

Now the vent is simply smoking,

but the lava flows
it left behind

could be
what the scientists need.

So the team plans to descend
to tier three.

First, though,
they need to check

that the lava has cooled enough
to walk on.

We're about to launch

a thermal camera fitted
to a drone

that the Belgian science team
have brought along,

and it's going to be flown
over T3,

the, um, lowermost level
next to the lava lake,

specifically to look at where
there may be hot rocks or magma

underneath the thin crust.

If you go over the front ones,

we know they are
about 60 degrees,

so this would be, like,
something we can use for T3.

What's his max?


Yeah, 500.

Don't go over the lake!

He's flying back this way along.

There's, there's something
really hot there.

Could be this vent?

I have a problem with the drone.

I cannot control it.

Is the drone,
have you got control?


Maybe you can move,
try to keep the signal...

Yeah, I think here, if you
just watch the... Okay.

So we're kind of
almost over the area

that we'll be
running the ropes in

and abseiling down, aren't we?

Was that safe enough
for tomorrow, that we...

I think that's fine,

as long as we don't go
too close to the vent,

which was really hot,
but everything else was okay.

I'm coming back, because
I cannot control the drone.

Okay, I can see it.
The wind is too strong.

I've got visual.

The drone's thermal camera

shows that the place the team
wants to collect samples from

is about 140 degrees Fahrenheit,
not too hot to walk on.

At the edge of the cliff face,

Aldo starts preparing
the climb down

for Olivier Namur,

who studies the
chemical composition of rocks.

He thinks samples
from the crater floor

will reveal
that the next eruption

will consist of fast-
or slow-flowing lava.

I'm interested in the
composition of the lavas

and the evolution through time.

So I've been sampling old lavas
in the last couple of days.

And I will be sampling
these very young lavas

that erupted last year
on tier three.

I think it's round about
a hundred meters,

so that's...
I think where we are now

is about the height
of the White Cliffs of Dover?

Yeah, thereabouts.

I've never been down here

This is gonna be my first time.

It isn't a straightforward

There's an initial
90-foot climb down,

then a sloping field
of fallen boulders,

where the crater wall
has collapsed,

followed by
a final vertical drop

to the crater floor.

It all has to be rigged safely,

so Aldo
and his climbing partner Daz

descend first.

So brittle.

Go ahead.

That's both Daz and I
on boulder field, over.


Whoa, there are some big chunks
of rock there, mate.

About 150 meters away
from the lava lake

at the minute, but I reckon,
Daz, about 80 meters,

so it's about 80 meters
straight down there.

At the foot of the cliff,

there's evidence of a dangerous
recent rock fall,

and up on the boulder field,

a sudden plume of sulfurous gas

means Aldo has to wear
a breathing mask.

Oh, man, look at these rocks.

Just precariously balanced.

If any of these rocks decide
to go...

Then that's it.

When Aldo drops over the edge,

Daz stays up
on the boulder field

to keep an eye out
on the rock face.

Yeah, I know, I can see
this bit,

across to our left-hand side
as you're climbing,

looks right dodgy.

As he descends,

it's clear any false move
could create a lethal rockfall.

There's stuff under here, mate,

the size of minivans,
just hanging on by a thread.

Even up on the camping level,

Benoît can see the risk
Aldo's taking.

There are big rocks above you,
uh, on the left.

They look pretty scary.

Nice, got you.

So I've just arrived
on tier three.

The lava lake is about
100 meters that way,

and, uh, that is the route
that I've just abseiled down.

It is, without a doubt,

one of the most dangerous things
I've ever done.

My mouth is dry.


And my heart rate is up.

All the classic signs of...

100%, pure, unadulterated fear.

All the classic signs
that it's time to climb back up.

Um... It is super-sketchy.

I think it's the most
sketchiest thing that...

that I've seen
since being in here.

I don't know
what you're used to, but...

I'm not entirely sure
I would go back down there.

If you think
it's not a good idea,

then not take a risk.

I mean, we are here
to do good science

and collect exceptional data,

but not taking stupid risks.

I know you well enough to know

that if that, uh,
situation down there is, uh...

You're fearful of that, then...

No, it's too dangerous.

Let's forget about going
to tier three. Okay.

The descent to the crater floor
is abandoned,

but there is still another
possible source of fresh lava.

The vent activity Aldo witnessed
during preparation

threw out chunks of solid lava,
or lava bombs,

and some may have landed

on the boulder field
halfway down to tier three.

If they can be found,

the science team
will have samples

of fairly fresh lava.

For the rock samples,
we can have some spatters...

Yeah, but only from the...

Coming from the vent
in the boulder field.

It's not ideal.

It's not ideal,
but it's better than nothing.

It's the best we can do.

The team descends quickly.

No one wants to hang
around here too long.

I mean, you're standing,
hammering a cliff

which is
clearly already unstable.

Yeah, this is true,

but this is the only way
to get these samples.

Olivier soon finds
what he was looking for...

New lava bombs.

What have you got?

It's a very fine-grained lava.

This should be enough.

It's quite fresh.

I think they will tell us
quite a lot

about the recent activity
of the volcano.

After an uneventful hour,
he has enough samples.

For a volcanologist,

they contain
an unmistakable message.

Let me show you one
of the samples

that I collected
from the active vent.

We can see that, uh, this sample
is a glassy black matrix.

We can see a lot of bubbles
here around

and few, um,
tiny white crystals.

We know that the composition
of this volcano

are low in silica,
very low, below 40%,

and this makes this lava
very fluid.

So they have low viscosity,

they will be flowing like water

along the flanks of the
volcano rather than mud.

Silica is a key component
of sand,

but also of lava.

The less there is,
the more fluid the lava,

and the faster it flows.

Nyiragongo has some of
the lowest-silica-content lava

on the planet.

But there's another clue
to the lava's speed

in Olivier's sample, and
it's not good news.

And on top of that,

because they have
only a few crystals,

that decrease again
the viscosity of this lava.

But because they have
only a few crystals,

they are very fluid.

So I suspect that
if there is a new eruption

with this composition,

it might be flowing even faster
than during 2002.

In 2002, lava flowed toward Goma

at reported speeds
of up to 25 miles an hour.

Olivier's samples reveal

that next time,
it could flow more quickly.

The people of Goma will have
less time to evacuate,

making the need
for an effective warning system

even more urgent.

The expedition is coming
to an end.

The team is getting ready
to head out of the crater.

The scientists have installed
seismic stations

around Nyiragongo

and has tested a variety
of technologies

to monitor the lava lake

and detect the build-up
of pressure

in the magma chamber below.

The task is not done,
but it's a good start.

Volcanoes can live
for millions of years,

and we're here
for a couple of weeks.

But we're getting
the beginnings of an idea

of what this volcano
is capable of doing.

It will always be dangerous

to live in
this highly volcanic landscape.

As their work has revealed,

for the moment,
Nyiragongo is quiet.

But it will not always
remain so.

The quest to understand
this volcano

and its fiery lake must go on.

Nyiragongo is not
an easy volcano to study.

It is a massive headache

in terms of getting people
and equipment here.

The motivation for it
is very clear.

There are a million people

living very close
to this volcano,

so despite all the problems,
it's worth it.

Heading into danger...

Armed groups around the volcano.

A scientific team explores

a once-powerful volcano
gone eerily quiet.

I got a view of the entire
volcanic landscape.

But will it roar back,
deadlier than before,

putting lives at risk?

We've lowered the probe in.

Time may be running out to
solve the mystery of...

"Volcano on the Brink"...

Coming up next.

This "NOVA" program
is available on DVD.

"NOVA" is also available
on Amazon Prime Video.